CIA director Robert Gates announced Friday that the agency will take the first steps toward declassifying hundreds of thousands of its secret files, including those on the Kennedy assassination, the 1954 Guatemala coup, the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis.
Declaring "a real shift on CIA's part toward greater openness and sense of public responsibility," Gates also promised more interviews with CIA officials, greaterresponsiveness by the agency to media inquiries and expanded agency contacts with colleges and universities.
Speaking in Tulsa to the Oklahoma Press Association, Gates said he recognized that his topic, "CIA Openness," was a seemingly contradictory figure of speech, like "bureaucratic efficiency" and "government frugality." But he said he was determined to open new lines of communication with the public, the media, the academic world and within the corridors of the CIA itself.
The drive is part of a move to adapt the CIA and the rest of the U.S. intelligence community to a post-Cold War world where the "enemy" will be more elusive and where public support in a time of shrinking budgets could be crucial.
In the case of the Kennedy files, "There is no indication the CIA had any part in the assassination," Gates said. "The declassification of documents I think will help persuade people of that."
His comments could make it easier for Congress to answer growing calls for the release of thousands of sealed documents relating to the 1963 assassination. Debate about the killing was stirred by the release last year of JFK, a film that contends Kennedy was the victim of a shadowy government conspiracy, primarily involving the Pentagon and CIA.
Gates said the agency has been kept from any action on its own to open the Kennedy files by privacy regulations and the fact that many of the documents it holds belong to others.
But he said the CIA would cooperate fully in any government-wide declassification process, adding that all agency documents about the Kennedy assassination will be transferred to a historical review unit that will examine these and other files.
Gates said he was beefing up the unit to include 15 full-time positions and transferring it to an agency think tank called the Center for the Study of Intelligence "where there will be a bias toward declassification of historical documents."
The historical review unit was set up in 1985 as part of a successful CIA lobbying effort to put operational and technical security files beyond the reach of the Freedom of Information Act. Except for declassifying "a very limited volume" of documents from the CIA's history staff files, the results of the unit "have been quite meager," Gates conceded.
He said the enlarged staff will review for declassification all documents more than 30 years old, except operational and technical security files, and all national intelligence estimates on the Soviet Union more than 10 years old. Some reviewers will focus onselected subjects like the 1961 Bay of Pigs, 1962 Cuban missile crisis, and the 1954 coup in Guatemala, which the United States was widely believed to have sponsored.
Gates did not say how many documents the CIA has on the Kennedy assassination. But the agency told a Washington district court 10 years ago that it had made about 300,000 pages available to a congressional committee that investigated the assassination.
Rep. Louis Stokes, who was chairman of that panel, is preparing a resolution in conjunction with Sen. David Boren, D-Okla., chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, calling for release of the files. The FBI, which supplied many of the documents, has indicated some reluctance to go along.
Gates, acting on the recommendations of a special task force on openness, also said senior CIA officials would be available for interviews and the agency's Office of Public Affairs would provide more background briefings for the media "as opportunities arise."
It still may be difficult to change what Gates acknowledged was a deep-set penchant for secrecy at an agency where "for many years, armed guards and physical barriers separated some parts of CIA from others."
Asked, for instance, for a copy of the report of the task force on openness, agency spokesman Peter Earnest declined to provide it, saying it was "an internal document" and portions were classified.
_ Information from Washington Post, Associated Press, Los Angeles Times and Reuters was used in this report.